When Jess Ekstrom came back to North Carolina State after a summer interning at the Make-A-Wish Foundation, she knew what to do.
“I saw a lot of kids that were losing their hair to chemotherapy and they'd be offered a wig or they'd be given a hat. And a lot of them weren't really concerned with covering up their heads after losing their hair. They just wanted something to feel good about themselves.”
So in 2012, Ekstorm started the North Carolina-based Headbands of Hope out of her college dorm room with a promise: For every headband she sold, she would donate one to a child fighting cancer. She came up with that idea after Blake Mycoskie, the founder of Tom’s Shoes, spoke at her school about for-purpose businesses. His visit motivated her to start a business with the one-for-one model he pioneered.
Today, Headbands of Hope has sold nearly half a million headbands and donated just as many to every hospital in the United States and in 15 other countries. Along with an e-commerce business, Headbands of Hope are sold in more than 2,000 retail shops across the country and have become a go-to accessory for many, from high school students to celebrities in Hollywood.
But that didn’t happen overnight. Ekstrom was a communications major with a minor in Spanish. Rather than graduate first and then enroll in business school, Ekstrom spent her junior year learning the basics of business and product design, enlisting professors and fellow students along the way.
“Starting Headbands of Hope while in college was a propeller for my business and not a barrier,” Ekstrom says. “The narrative is usually that you need to finish school before living life and building a business. There were so many resources I had as a college student that helped me build my business.
But Ekstrom’s gonzo education didn’t prepare her for those initial years. Some months, she only sold a handful of headbands.
“I remember my first order was from my mom,” she says. “There was this moment where I thought, ‘Is this going to work?’ Only my friends and family are buying this. I would maybe get an order from the website every few days.”
One day, Ekstrom was reading an article about top fitness bloggers. She took a chance and emailed all of them, introducing her company and headbands.
Two of the bloggers responded and asked for samples of Ekstrom’s headbands. Soon, they published blog posts featuring Ekstrom’s apparel and mentioning the site. Orders started pouring in after the posts.
“That was the first time when I started getting orders on the site from people that I didn't know,” Ekstrom says.
The sampling helped Ekstorm spread her message and taught her a valuable business lesson: Embrace the failures and learn from the success. Working with the bloggers led Ekstrom to develop “Headband Heroes,” brand ambassadors who promote the company and its products via social media.
“A lot of my success hasn’t been this carefully calculated strategic plan,” she says. “A lot of it is just about throwing darts and seeing what sticks.”
Those challenges helped Ekstrom develop an “auditing” practice where she reminds herself of her success in business and the effect she’s had on thousands of cancer patients. She says it revitalizes her optimism and recommits her to the company and its mission.
“Failures in business will always feel better than regrets,” she says. “To know that, no matter what, even when it's hard, I'm going to have no regrets and I'm going to be able to look back and see this ripple effect of what I created and for all these kids. That is what keeps me going.”
Today, Ekstrom is looking to expand the company’s product line. She’s developing DIY kits so that hospitalized children can create their own headbands. Ekstrom says the kits will act as “cool art therapy” and add to the company’s mission to help hospitalized children feel normal.
She’s also wants to open her mission beyond pediatric oncology to include all hospitalized children suffering from a chronic illness. The company’s production has outgrown the number of children diagnosed in the United States every year -- an estimated 16,000 in 2018, according to the American Cancer Society -- and Ekstrom believes that other children could benefit from the headbands, whether they’re in the hospital for a week or a much longer stay.
“These headbands aren't just great for kids with hair loss. It's just a sign of being a kid and normalcy,” she says. “It's something that gives that gesture of hope, whether you're experiencing hair loss or not.
Thanks to her work with Headbands of Hope, Ekstrom has become a popular keystone speaker at summits, corporate events, and universities. She also has a book coming out in November called, “Chasing the Bright Side,” which details the origins and growth of Headbands of Hope. With the book, Ekstrom wants to illustrate how she pushed through the challenges of starting her own business by focusing on opportunity and optimism.
It’s a sentiment that Ekstrom continues to exhibit as she continues to grow Headbands of Hope. While she contends that “not every day is flower crowns,” Ekstrom believes that even during those moments of struggle and self-doubt, bigger and better opportunities await.
“Every day, every time I power up my laptop, every time I get on a flight, every time I have a meeting, it is leading to something bigger than myself,” she says. “I will never look back and wonder if I was doing enough.”